Shortcake is one of the most versatile of all home desserts. The biscuit-like cake can be enriched with more butter and an egg yolk, spiced, studded with currants or chopped raisins, glazed with beaten egg white for a glossy finish, or brushed with milk and topped with cinnamon sugar.
The filling can be anything at all from savory to sweet: on the savory end, creamed chicken, creamed asparagus or peas, or even seafood (though I'd leave out the sugar in the shortcake for that); on the sweet end, fresh berries or soft summer fruit such as peaches, plums, mangoes, or figs, jam, cooked fruit compote, or even citrus marmalade.
But one of the very best of those fillings, even better perhaps than strawberries, is ripe, bright tart-sweet peaches. If you've never had peach shortcake, before the last fruit of the summer are gone, give it a try and see for yourself.
This biscuit-like shortcake is the kind I remember my mother making throughout my childhood: She never had those little sponge cake cups and of course they were "fancy" so naturally we wanted those and not her simple homey cakes. Now we know better.
For the biscuit shortcakes
5 ounces (about 1 cup) all-purpose Southern soft-wheat flour or pastry flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 tablespoon chilled lard or vegetable shortening, cut into bits
About ½ cup whole milk buttermilk or whole milk yogurt thinned to buttermilk consistency
For the peaches:
2 large, ripe freestone peaches
1 lemon, halved
5-7 tablespoons sugar, divided
Ground cinnamon and whole nutmeg in a grater
1 cup heavy cream
1. To make the shortcakes: Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450° F. Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and lard and cut it in with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture is the size of small peas. Make a well in the center and pour in ½ cup of buttermilk. Using a very light hand and as few strokes as possible, combine the ingredients into a soft dough. If it is too crumbly and dry, add milk by the spoonful until the dough is just holding together. Gather it into a ball.
2. Lightly flour the dough and a work surface and put the dough on it. Pat it out ½-inch thick. Fold it in half, pat flat again, and repeat 3-4 more times, using as light a hand as possible. If the dough gets sticky, lightly flour it, but use as little flour as possible. Pat it out ½-inch thick. Dip a 2½-inch-round biscuit cutter in flour and, pushing straight down without twisting, cut the dough into 4 rounds. Any leftover scraps can be lightly reworked and cut or baked as they are for cook's treat. Lay the cakes on an un-greased baking sheet.
3. Bake in the upper third of the oven for 8-12 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on a rack and, if making them ahead, store them in an airtight tin or plastic container.
4. While shortcakes bake, peel, halve, and pit the peaches and slice them into a glass or ceramic bowl. Sprinkle with the juice of ½ lemon, a tiny dash or pinch of salt, 3-4 tablespoons of sugar, a dusting of cinnamon, and a light grating of nutmeg, all to taste. Toss well until the fruit is evenly coated, cover, and let it sit for 10-15 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved. Taste and adjust the lemon juice, sugar, and spices and let it sit 5 minutes longer.
5. When you're ready to serve, whip the cream until frothy and beginning to thicken, sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of sugar, then whip it to firm peaks. Split the shortcakes horizontally with a serrated knife. Put the bottom halves on 4 dessert plates. Top with the peaches and some of their juice, holding back a few slices for garnish, then top each serving with a healthy dollop of whipped cream. Put the top halves of the shortcake over the filling, add a dollop or whipped cream, and garnish the edge with a few slices of peach. Serve as soon as they're assembled.
Recipe and some text are adapted from Essentials of Southern Cooking, Copyright © 2013 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.